By Hao, Tun Scarlett
Dr. Jon Orman comes from Shoreham-by-Sea, England. He joined the School of English this August. Before coming to HKU, he did his BA at University College London and both his MA and PhD at Queen Mary, University of London. In 2008, his PhD thesis Language Policy and Nation-Building in Post-Apartheid South Africa was published by Springer. Between 2011 and 2013, he was a postdoctoral research fellow in linguistics at the University of Cape Town and in 2014/2015 he was a lecturer in linguistics and communication studies at the University of Portsmouth.
Q: What are your research interests?
A: One of my main interests is in integrational linguistics, an approach which originated in the work of the late Roy Harris. Integrational linguistics is an important theoretical development in the philosophy of language and linguistics. It offers both a theory of communication and a radical critique of linguistics. It criticizes two fundamental ideas in modern linguistics – namely languages as fixed codes and communication as involving the transfer of thoughts from one mind to another by people who share such codes. In integrational linguistics one important idea is that each person’s linguistic experience is unique, which means that speakers do not necessarily need to share any identical knowledge for communication to take place.
Q: Why did you want to work at HKU?
A: HKU has a strong history in integrational linguistics going back to Roy Harris’s tenure as Head of the School of English between 1988 and 1991. I also share similar research interests with fellow integrationists Professor Christopher Hutton and Dr. Adrian Pablé here in our school.
Q: How do you think about linguistic studies? Do you regard linguistics as a science?
A: Linguistics likes to think itself as science. But certainly linguistics is in a very different position in comparison to subjects such as chemistry and biology. Linguistics does not have an object given in advance. It does not have a single clear question or set of questions waiting for answers. In linguistics, the theory creates the object.
In a sense, getting at the truth about language is controversial and fraught with difficulty, because it presupposes that there is a single truth or essence to discover. Language is not a unitary phenomenon so there cannot be a single truth about it. Linguists cannot even agree on what language is or what it involves. In this sense, linguistic enquiry is fundamentally different to the ‘hard’ or natural sciences insofar as one cannot simply go out into the world and collect linguistic facts, build up pictures about these facts and at the end have full accounts of them.
I would not say that science can tell us nothing about language and communication. For example, there are biomechanical aspects which impact upon communication. But when it comes down to the semiotic aspects of languages, then I think science is in real trouble, because there are mental aspects, emotional aspects, psychological aspects and behavioral aspects which we cannot observe. But again they are very important aspects. One way of understanding them is to get people to talk about them. There you come to the limits of science. Science can only tell you so much, and where language is concerned, that is not very much.
Q: So in your opinion, what would be a proper way to do linguistics?
A: For me, linguistics is basically a form of philosophy. I think it needs to be a very reflexive form of enquiry. You have to ask questions based on your own practice and experience. To me, linguistics is best conceived an investigation of metalanguages, metalinguistic concepts and how they function within cultures or cross-culturally. Articulating one’s own linguistic experience is a way for people to make sense of the world and make sense of their own languages, so this really takes it away from empirical science to a form of philosophizing.
Q: Do you have any advice for beginners like new PhD students?
A: Keep a wide range of academic interests and do not specialize too narrowly too soon. Take an interest in all kinds of linguistics and language aspects if you can. Because you may get a skewed view by only looking at one part. Read things you disagree with as well. And at last embrace the uncertainty and do not let things freak you out.